OVERTONES

In our example of the two lawyers we end with their conflict unresolved, but that doesn’t mean that such a story is pointless.  We return to the same place, but with a much fuller understanding.  When we were young we believed that every question had an answer, every problem a solution.  As adults we realize it isn’t that simple.  Sometimes the “answer” we achieve is our better understanding of all the ramifications of the “question.”  So with writing, especially writing in which we are exaggerating conflict to heighten drama, the “resolution” of the conflict may very well be, not only our understanding what happens, but also our experiencing all of its ramifications.  And, don’t underestimate the power of symmetry.  Art gives structure to events, and that, in itself, is a type of “resolution”–a way to make sense of the seeming randomness of life we are always trying grasp.  It’s the basis of the next principle, Principle #4, but here’s an analogy using music I hope clarifies what I’m saying.        

 

You can look at classical music as plot without story. Granted there may be certain allusions, but the “meaning” of music is the way a piece is developed–its melodies, harmonies, rhythms and orchestration.  In one of his TV lectures Leonard Bernstein explained this in terms of a baseball diamond.  Home plate is the principle tone (the tonic); the other bases are notes that are different from, but related to the tonic home plate. One can run around these bases in order, or one can skip among them arbitrarily; but the point is always to return eventually home, to our tonic home plate.  When we strike the single note of C on the piano, for example, we hear not only that tone but also other notes that make up C, called overtones, which are at the same time higher and fainter.  C is our tonic; the overtones are C, an octave higher, G a fifth higher than that, C again, now a fourth further higher and E, yet a third even higher.  You can prove this by depressing the middle C on the piano very carefully so as not to let it sound; then sharply strike and quickly release the C an octave below.  As soon as the lower C is released the upper C vibrates sympathetically as the first overtone.  So C, E and G are the bases (at this point a baseball triangle, rather than a baseball diamond).  Expand the overtones further in this way and you have the five-note scale.  Run them different ways to get different folk tunes.  No matter what the variation our ear wants to return at the end to C, the tonic.  Expand these overtones further and you end up with seven-note scale and eventually our twelve-note, chromatic scale.  

 

In a story or article, the first time we state the conflict is like hitting that tonic note.  The complications of the plot or the development of the theme are explorations of the overtones of that conflict.  When we return to the conflict, directly again at the end of the piece our “ear” now consciously hears all the plot “overtones” that it unconsciously heard when that conflict was first stated.  The material itself suggests a structure–we’ll examine that in Principle #4–but once you, as writer, are aware of that structure it’s very productive to think of it like the structure of a piece of music.  As we respond to music, even though it is devoid of semantic meaning, our audience will respond to the structure and development of a piece of writing as well as responding to the experiences the words represent.  This is most obvious in poetry, which unhesitatingly combines sound and sense. But it’s also true of all other writing, including non-fiction.  The essays and letters of E.B. White are fine examples.  A beneficial exercise is to take a book that has multiple themes, such as George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and analyze its structure using musical terms.  Here is one story line (or melody) that is horizontal, flowing through time in a linear way; and another running horizontally at the same time in counterpoint.  Concurrent notes sounding simultaneously give us chords or a vertical sound.  Additional characters provide the equivalent of this vertical sound or harmony.  When you start to see a layering in the writing of others and look for possibilities of doing it in your own writing, you’ll never be satisfied with anything less than rich composition again.   

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